Scotland should get ‘equal access’ to antibody test, says Alister Jack

Scotland should get equal access to a new antibody test that can determine whether people have been infected with coronavirus in the past, Scottish Secretary Alister Jack has said.

Mr Jack said he would be “arguing strongly” for NHS Scotland to be included in UK-wide procurement and distribution of the test, which could allow those who have had the illness to exit lockdown more quickly than other.

It came as a leading expert urged the Scottish Government to “bid quickly” for the antibody test, which has previously been called a “game-changer” by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

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Professor Hugh Pennington was reacting to the announcement by Public Health England (PHE) endorsing the test, which has been validated by experts at its Porton Down facility. The test, made by Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roch, picks up 100 per cent of cases where somebody has had coronavirus in the past.

Alister Jack, Secretary of State for Scotland. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

Experts believe those who have had Covid-19 develop a degree of immunity, meaning it could prove a useful tool for helping to ease lockdown restrictions.

Number 10 said the new antibody test would “certainly” be available on the NHS but commercial discussions with Roche are ongoing.

Professor Pennington, from the University of Aberdeen, said Scotland had been low on the list in terms of ordering medicines before and “might be second” behind England this time.

He said: “In theory it could be used in Scotland and I would hope that the Scottish Government is talking to Public Health England and to Roche – they’ll obviously have to negotiate a deal if the test is going to be made available in any numbers.

“But it didn’t sound like that’s going to happen this month – it might take a good bit longer than that to get capacity for the test.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the idea of an “immunity certificate” was still under consideration if science showed people developed immunity to Covid-19.

Professor John Newton, national co-ordinator of the UK Coronavirus Testing Programme, said although it was still unclear to what extent the presence of antibodies indicated immunity, the test was a “very positive development”.

Professor Pennington added: “We need to find out how good the test really is and it shouldn’t be difficult to get that information and they’d have to buy it as it’s made by a commercial company.

“I would be very surprised if this test was a ‘game changer’ – it would be very useful to know who’s had the virus as that would give us a clue as to how many cases there have been under the radar in Scotland.

“The test available now [in Scotland] is a very good one that can tell if someone has the virus and we should be testing people in care homes to make sure their not carrying it in with them unbeknownst to them. I would hope the top priority for the Scottish Government continues to be the test that is available – developing capacity so they can do the ‘test, trace and isolate’ as soon as possible and the antibody test would come later.”

Roche said it could supply hundreds of thousands of the tests each week. It runs on fully-automated equipment already widely installed by Roche at NHS sites across the UK.

The pharmaceutical firm said it would prioritise tests for distribution via the NHS before looking at how they may be sold to individuals.

Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said the development of the antibody test was “a good result”. He said antibodies “stick around probably for a year or two” adding that the Roche test was the “best approved test available on the market now”.

But he said it was unclear whether having Covid-19 gave immunity against all future infection with the virus.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Health Protection Scotland, with key partners, are assessing a number of antibody tests including the Roche Diagnostics antibody test, in order to identify which will work best in Scotland. We are working across the UK, to ensure the joint development of an antibody testing strategy. While this work is progressing rapidly, it is too early to confirm if any one test will be part of the solution for Scotland.”

Giving evidence to the Scottish affairs committee at Westminster, Mr Jack said: “We have a centralised PPE facility in Liverpool where we have supplied millions of units of PPE to the Scottish NHS and I would expect to have some centralised purchasing for this antibody test.

“It would be a very good thing and it should be fairly distributed throughout the UK, and I shall be arguing for that strongly.”